We’re honouring one of the true architects of modern music with a special edition of our …In 20 Quotes series. Sir George Martin, producer of almost the entire awe-inspiring recorded catalogue of The Beatles and a hugely accomplished writer, arranger and musician with countless other achievements to his name, was born in Highbury, north London, on 3 January 1926.
What follows is a selection of comments from the unabridged version of an extensive interview by this writer with Sir George, who passed away in March 2016, two months after his 90th birthday. An edited account of the meeting, which took place at AIR Studios in London in 1998, appeared in Billboard magazine at the time, when Martin was releasing his final album project, the all-star In My Life album.
This came the year after he had produced Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind 1997’, now recognised as the best-selling single worldwide in recording history and Martin’s 30th UK No.1 single. We hope these quotes give an entertaining insight into one of the most remarkable careers in pop music.
“My parents weren’t musical, but they were very creative. My sister was three and a half years older than me, and she had piano lessons. I used to copy what she did when I was about four or five, and I wanted to have piano lessons too. But we couldn’t afford that, so I just made up my own music as I went along.”
“I just went on my own sweet way and found I could make music on the piano, and by the time I was 15 I was running a dance band. I went into the services because the war was still on, still keeping up my music. I met quite a few interesting characters, good musical people, who advised me to take up music.”
“I had a fairy godfather in the shape of Sidney Harrison, a wonderful man who was a very good pianist and educationalist. He urged me very strongly to take up music, and he helped me because he arranged for me to have an audition with the Principal of the Guildhall School of Music.”
“When you’re young, you’re not only confident, but damned arrogant. I was full of myself and thought I was terrific. I didn’t realise how inadequate I was.”
“There were about a dozen record producers in the country. But then they weren’t called record producers, they were called ‘Artist and Repertoire Managers.’ They didn’t really shape events in the studio; their job, rather like the A&R men of today, was to recruit talent, put them in the studio and give them an opportunity to be recorded, rather like a broadcast.”
“As I was running a label [Parlophone] by 1955 and I was responsible for the work on that label, I had to choose not only the artists but what they were doing, and make sure they were going to make a record that was going to sell.”
“In the 50s, stereo was reserved for classical recordings. You didn’t do any overdubbing or editing. When I first went into Abbey Road Studios in 1950, we didn’t use tape, we went directly to wax, because it was so much better quality.”
“I’ve written 15 films. The first experience was a nightmare, because I didn’t know anything the techniques of film writing and I just muddled my way through it. But I learned fast, and became fairly accomplished at doing what was necessary.”
“I had a hit with Ron Goodwin called ‘Skiffling Strings’ in the era of hit instrumentals. In America it was issued as ‘Swinging Sweethearts’, and it entered the charts. So Ron had to go and promote it, and I went with him. I went to many studios including Capitol of course, and to a Frank Sinatra session. I was enormously impressed. They were so much better than we were.”
“I was 36 when I first met The Beatles, and I was an old man to them. But perceptions have changed. They were on an average 16 years younger than me, so I was a kind of big brother rather than a father.”
“When The Beatles came along, there wasn’t much rock’n’roll music in [the UK]. Tommy Steele was about the most extreme one we had, and Cliff Richard. So there was no yardstick to judge it from. Having made all these comedy records, there was an advantage there, because The Beatles were great Goon fans, and they loved the Peter Sellers recordings and they knew that I’d made them.”
“I didn’t know them from Adam, they didn’t mean anything to me. So it was a bit one-sided when we first met, but they had that idiotic sense of humour that I love too, and that made me want to be with them. If you haven’t got a good sense of humour, life’s not worth living.”
“Because there wasn’t a rock ’n’ roll precedent, The Beatles when they came turned everything upside down and made a revolution, which I didn’t foresee.”
“When I was recording them in the early days, I was looking for a hit song, and I knew they didn’t have it. But when ‘Please Please Me’ came along in the form that it did, it was a different matter.”
“Eventually the flood gates opened in America in 1964 with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and from that point on it was mayhem. But you see, I didn’t spend all that much time with them because they were on tour all the time. Recording time was issued out to me very sparingly.”
“They did flower, they blossomed, and they astonished me with their ideas. Each song they brought to me was a gem, and I said to myself, ‘It can’t last.’ I’d say to them, ‘That’s great, now give me a better one.’ And they did. I was so thrilled with what they gave me.”
“I’ve got quite a few favourite Beatles albums. I like Revolver very much and I like Rubber Soul very much, but I’m very fond of Abbey Road. Probably because it’s the last album we made, and we kind of knew that.”
“I was privileged that Elton asked me to work with him on [‘Candle In The Wind 1997’]. It became my last No. 1, and probably my last single. It’s not a bad one to go out on.”
“The funny thing about getting old is you don’t basically feel any different. Every time I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I look at my dad. I say, ‘Morning, dad,’ and I go on to shave.”
“I’ve had a bloody good innings. I can’t imagine anyone who’s been luckier than I have with the kind of artists I’ve been able to record.”
Follow The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love playlist, featuring some of their most beloved songs and groundbreaking recordings with Sir George Martin.